RISEN, Part 1: Revolutionary Evidence

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This post is Part 1 of our RISEN series. You can also read the IntroductionPart 2Part 3Part 4, or Part 5.

Defending the truth of the resurrection begins by considering its undeniable significance. Perhaps the greatest reason to accept its historical reality is the historical revolution it created. When you consider his credentials, Jesus of Nazareth should never have worked. He was poor, uneducated, non-political, counter-cultural, resisted popularity, and left the world no writings. His public work lasted only three years until he was shamefully executed like a common criminal without a follower left to his name, except a few loyal women.

And yet here we are with Jesus standing alone as the centerpiece of human existence, and a following that is the flagship movement of human history. From a historical perspective this makes no sense, which is why historians have struggled for centuries to make sense of it. In particular, the early stages of this revolution are baffling. One might conceive how generations later the legend of Jesus had spread, and the movement took on a life of its own. But it’s that first generation that is so inexplicable.

How is it that his disciples who had all abandoned him at his death (and weren’t even particularly faithful and bold during his life), were curiously transformed into these courageous witnesses willing to go to their own death for Jesus? Or consider the Apostle Paul. Even the most critical historian will not deny Paul’s story. He was Christianity’s first and fiercest opponent, having early Christians imprisoned and killed. But then, out of nowhere, he becomes Christianity’s fiercest advocate, willing to endure his own imprisonment and death to spread the gospel of Jesus.

How do we account for these impossible transformations? Well, the easiest way to account for them is to take the transformed at their word: they claimed what changed everything for them was encountering the risen Jesus. That’s essentially how this whole thing called Christianity got started. These early followers went about the ancient world proclaiming that Jesus is risen, which means Jesus is true, which means the gospel he proclaimed and performed is true.

On that point there is no debate. All historians agree that the resurrection claim was the foundation and motivation of this movement from the beginning. The debate is whether they actually encountered the resurrection or invented the resurrection. There are many problems with the latter that I will point out later, but the biggest problem is that nobody would ever die for a lie they invented.

People die for lies all the time. Take the 9/11 terrorists, for example. But the problem with the disciple’s martyrdom is that they would be dying for a known lie that they themselves crafted. So skeptical historians are left making the following case: Cowardly disciples who abandoned Jesus in his death, along with Christianity’s early enemy, along with hundreds of other lesser known people, contrived a mass conspiracy to trick the ancient world into believing an unbelievable event took place. And not only were they able to pull the conspiracy off (impossibly unlikely, as we will see in later posts), they were also willing to suffer and die for their own conspiracy.

Or the other option is that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, appearing to his disciples, sworn enemy, and hundreds of others, and that revolutionary miracle led to a revolutionary following. A revolution that carries on to this day.

- Robert